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Lawyers on both sides questioned the jury’s award of only funeral expenses for Danny Altice.
STEPHANIE KLEIN-DAVIS | The Roanoke Times
Christie Altice-Weaver (left) and her attorney Kathleen Wright listen to the judge read the verdict Wednesday in court. Altice-Weaver filed the lawsuit.
Sunday, September 29, 2013
Judge William Alexander waited Wednesday evening until jurors and most others had left the courtroom before speaking directly to Christie Altice-Weaver, the daughter of the late William “Danny” Altice, and to Ann Dillon, the widow of Posey Dillon.
Both Altice, 67, and Posey Dillon, 59, were veteran volunteer firefighters who died July 26, 2010, of injuries they suffered after an SUV driven by Teri Anne Valentine collided with the men’s fire truck at a busy Rocky Mount intersection. A lawsuit tied to Altice’s death had just concluded in Franklin County Circuit Court when the judge addressed the two women.
“Maybe this will put everything to rest,” Alexander told Altice-Weaver and Ann Dillon.
It appears now that the judge’s words of comfort were expressed prematurely.
After finding that Valentine, but not Posey Dillon, acted negligently that day, a seven-person jury awarded $9,984.37 to the Altice family to cover funeral and burial expenses only. Altice-Weaver’s lawsuit had alleged that both Valentine and Posey Dillon, who was driving the fire truck, were negligent.
Two lawyers on opposite sides of the lawsuit agreed Saturday that the jury’s verdict Wednesday was inadequate. Under Virginia law, when a jury awards special damages such as funeral and burial expenses it is obligated also to award damages to compensate the family for losses suffered as a result of their loved one’s death.
Tony Russell, Altice-Weaver’s attorney, said Saturday that he will file a motion for a separate trial to consider damages if a settlement on damages is not reached soon with Valentine and her attorney, Brian Brydges, and with Glenn Pulley, an attorney representing State Farm Insurance .
During Russell’s closing argument Wednesday, he asked the jury to consider awarding $350,000 each to Altice-Weaver; Carey Altice, Danny Altice’s son; and Kayla Altice, the late firefighter’s granddaughter, if they found that Valentine and/or Posey Dillon had been negligent that day.
Brydges said Saturday that although “there is a problem with the adequacy of the verdict,” he would argue against a new trial focused solely on damages. He had previously asked Alexander to consider one trial to establish liability for the crash and, if negligence was found, a second trial to consider damages. Alexander had ruled against him.
Brydges said testimony by Altice family members during the trial about the impact of losing Danny Altice tainted the jury’s verdict that found Valentine negligent. He said he would prefer a new trial focused solely on Valentine’s liability.
Valentine testified Monday that she did not understand why she did not hear the fire truck’s siren and air horn or see its flashing lights before it was too late to avoid a collision at the intersection of School Board Road and Virginia 40. Several eyewitness to the crash testified during the trial that they had clearly heard the fire truck’s siren and air horn and had seen its lights as it headed eastbound on Virginia 40 in response to a report of a house fire in Union Hall.
After the collision, the fire truck hit a curb and began to flip. Altice and Weaver were ejected as the vehicle rolled and died of their injuries.
Valentine entered the intersection that day on a green light from School Board Road, and Dillon faced a red light. An investigation by Virginia State Police Trooper R.D. Conley concluded that the fire truck slowed but never stopped as it entered the intersection and reported that Valentine “lawfully entered the intersection” before striking the fire truck.
Conley’s report observed that the fire truck “failed to proceed through the red light with due regard to safety,” thereby violating state law that allows emergency vehicles to proceed through red lights “if the speed of the vehicle is sufficiently reduced to enable it to pass a signal, traffic light or device with due regard to the safety of persons and property.”
Altice-Weaver’s lawsuit contended that Valentine was negligent because state law requires drivers to yield the right of way to emergency vehicles that are providing audible or visual notice of their presence with a siren or air horn and by displaying flashing, blinking or alternating emergency lights.
The lawsuit had argued that Dillon was negligent because he allegedly entered the intersection “without regard for the safety of individuals on the roadway, including his passenger.” But one eyewitness testified during the trial that the fire truck had come to “a virtual stop” before entering the intersection.
After the jury found that Dillon had not been negligent, Ann Dillon was embraced by supporters at the trial.
But Russell said Saturday he will likely ask Alexander for a new trial on the issue of Posey Dillon’s liability.
He said he believes the judge erred by not allowing the plaintiff’s expert witness to share conclusions about whether Dillon had entered the intersection without regard for the safety of others and by not allowing the jury to review material from a training manual on the safe operation of emergency vehicles.
“We believe very strongly that we should get a new trial on Dillon,” Russell said.
Alexander could not be reached for comment.
Russell said one challenge will be finding jurors in Franklin County who would be unbiased about the lawsuit.
He said the Altice family’s decision to pursue the case was not necessarily popular in Franklin County but added that he believed it was the right thing for them to do. He said the family suffered a great loss because of a tragedy he described during the trial as preventable and avoidable. And Russell said he felt the lawsuit had raised community awareness about the safe operation of emergency vehicles.
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